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An overview of the LTE physical layer--Part I

Frank Rayal, Telesystem Innovations - May 23, 2010

The design of the LTE physical layer (PHY) is heavily influenced by requirements for high peak
transmission rate (100 Mbps DL/50 Mbps UL), spectral efficiency, and multiple channel bandwidths
(1.25-20 MHz). To fulfill these requirements, orthogonal frequency division multiplex (OFDM) was
selected as the basis for the PHY layer.

OFDM is a technology that dates back to the 1960’s. It was considered for 3G systems in the mid-
1990s before being determined too immature. Developments in electronics and signal processing
since that time has made OFDM a mature technology widely used in such other access systems as
802.11 (WiFi) and 802.16 (WiMAX) and broadcast systems (Digital Audio/Video Broadcast-
-DAB/DVB). In addition to OFDM, LTE implements multiple-antenna techniques such as MIMO
(multiple input multiple output), which can either increase channel capacity (spatial multiplexing) or
enhance signal robustness (space frequency/time coding).

Together, OFDM and MIMO are two key technologies featured in LTE and constitute major
differentiation over 3G systems, which are based on code division multiple access (CDMA). This
article presents an overview of the LTE physical layer which in itself is a very large and feature-rich
topic, particularly as there are different modes of operation (FDD/TDD) and different downlink and
uplink access technologies (OFDMA, SC-FDMA), along with options and exceptions for each mode
and access technology. To narrow the scope, this paper will focus on essential aspects of the
physical layer for FDD mode which is the dominant mode of operation and selected by incumbent
mobile operators as it fits well into existing and perspective spectrum assignments. Furthermore,
the topic of MIMO is left out and is a subject to a separate whitepaper. It is hoped that this paper
will serve as a useful introduction to practitioners involved in designing LTE based-networks and
systems such as network engineers, product managers and technical managers.

Multiple access techniques

The OFDM technology is based on using multiple narrow band sub-carriers spread over a wide
channel bandwidth. The sub-carriers are mutually orthogonal in the frequency domain, which
mitigates inter-symbol interference (ISI) as shown in Figure 1. Each of these sub-carriers
experiences 'flat fading' as they have a bandwidth smaller than the mobile channel coherence
bandwidth. This obviates the need for complex frequency equalizers, which are featured in 3G
The information data stream is parallelized and spread across the sub-carriers for transmission. The
process of modulating data symbols and combining them is equivalent to an Inverse Fourier
Transform operation (IFFT). This results in an OFDM symbol of duration Tu which is termed 'useful
symbol length'. In the receiver, the reverse operation is applied to the OFDM symbol to retrieve the
data stream--which is equivalent to a Fast Fourier Transform operation (FFT).

The mobile propagation channel is typically time dispersive: multiple replicas of a transmitted signal
are received with various time delays due to multipath resulting from reflections the signal incurs
along the path between the transmitter and receiver. Time dispersion is equivalent to a frequency
selective channel frequency response. This leads to at least a partial loss of orthogonality between
sub-carriers. The result is inter-symbol interference not only within a sub-carrier, but also between
sub-carriers. To prevent an overlapping of symbols and reduce intersymbol interference, a guard
interval Tg is added at the beginning of the OFDM symbol. The guard time interval, or cyclic prefix
(CP) is a duplication of a fraction of the symbol end. The total symbol length becomes Ts = Tu+ Tg.
This makes the OFDM symbol insensitive to time dispersion.

There are many advantages to using OFDM in a mobile access system, namely:

1. Long symbol time and guard interval increases robustness to multipath and limits intersymbol
2. Eliminates the need for intra-cell interference cancellation.
3. Allows flexible utilization of frequency spectrum.
4. Increases spectral efficiency due to orthogonality between sub-carriers.
5. Allows optimization of data rates for all users in a cell by transmitting on the best (i.e. non-faded)
sub-carriers for each user.

This last feature is the fundamental aspect of OFDMA: the use of OFDM technology to multiplex
traffic by allocating specific patterns of sub-carriers in the time-frequency space to different users.
In addition to data traffic, control channels and reference symbols can be interspersed. Control
channels carry information on the network and cell while reference symbols assist in determining
the propagation channel response.

The downlink physical layer of LTE is based on OFDMA. However, despite its many advantages,
OFDMA has certain drawbacks such as high sensitivity to frequency offset (resulting from instability
of electronics and Doppler spread due to mobility) and high peak-to-average power ratio (PAPR).
PAPR occurs due to random constructive addition of sub-carriers and results in spectral spreading of
the signal leading to adjacent channel interference. It is a problem that can be overcome with high
compression point power amplifiers and amplifier linearization techniques. While these methods can
be used on the base station, they become expensive on the User Equipment (UE). Hence, LTE uses
Single Carrier FDMA (SC-FDMA) with cyclic prefix on the uplink, which reduces PAPR as there is
only a single carrier as opposed to N carriers. Figure 2 illustrates the concepts of OFDMA and SC-

For practicality, SC-OFDMA is implemented in LTE using a Discrete Fourier Transform Spread
OFDM transmission (DFTS-OFDM), which is commonly referred to as a frequency-domain
generalization of SC-FDMA. The DFT is used to multiplex uplink transmissions in specific frequency
allocation blocks within the overall system bandwidth according to eNodeB scheduler instructions.
The bandwidth of the single carrier is determined based on the required data rate by the user. Data
remains serial and not parallelized as done on the downlink with OFDMA (i.e. one information bit is
being transmitted at a time). This leads to similar link performance parameters for the uplink and
downlink. However, there would be relatively high intersymbol interference for the uplink due to the
single carrier modulation. This requires a low-complexity block equalizer at the eNodeB receiver to
correct for the distorting effects of the radio channel. SC-FDMA is not as sensitive to frequency
instability and Doppler Effect as OFDM because of its single carrier nature.

Physical Layer Parameters

In the time domain, different time intervals within LTE are expressed as multiples of a basic time
unit Ts = 1/30720000. The radio frame has a length of 10 ms (Tframe = 307200 ⋅ Ts). Each frame is
divided into ten equally sized subframes of 1 ms in length (Tsubframe = 30720 ⋅ Ts). Scheduling is
done on a subframe basis for both the downlink and uplink. Each subframe consists of two equally
sized slots of 0.5 ms in length (Tslot = 15360 ⋅ Ts). Each slot in turn consists of a number of OFDM
symbols which can be either seven (normal cyclic prefix) or six (extended cyclic prefix). Figure 3
shows the frame structure for LTE in FDD mode (Frame Structure Type 1).

The useful symbol time is Tu = 2048 ⋅ Ts ≈ 66.7 μs. For the normal mode, the first symbol has a
cyclic prefix of length TCP = 160 ⋅ Ts ≈ 5.2 μs. The remaining six symbols have a cyclic prefix of
length TCP = 144 ⋅ Ts ≈ 4.7 μs. The reason for different CP length of the first symbol is to make the
overall slot length in terms of time units divisible by 15360. For the extended mode, the cyclic prefix
is TCP-e = 512 ⋅ Ts ≈ 16.7 μs. The CP is longer than the typical delay spread of a few microseconds
typically encountered in practice as shown in Figure 4. The normal cyclic prefix is used in urban
cells and high data rate applications while the extended cyclic prefix is used in special cases like
multi-cell broadcast and in very large cells (e.g. rural areas, low data rate applications).

The CP uses up part of the physical layer capacity: 7.5% in the case of normal cyclic prefix. One way
to reduce the relative overhead due to cyclic-prefix insertion is to reduce the sub-carrier spacing f,
with a corresponding increase in the symbol time Tu as a consequence. However, this will increase
the sensitivity of the OFDM transmission to frequency instability resulting from fast channel
variations (i.e. high Doppler spread) as well as different types of frequency errors due to electronics.

In the frequency domain, the number of sub-carriers N ranges from 128 to 2048, depending on
channel bandwidth with 512 and 1024 for 5 and 10 MHz, respectively, being most commonly used in
practice. The sub-carrier spacing is Δ ƒ = 1/Tu = 15 kHz. The sampling rate is ƒs = Δ ƒ ⋅ N = 15000 N.
This results in a sampling rate that's multiple or sub-multiple of the WCDMA chip rate of 3.84 Mcps:
LTE parameters have been chosen such that FFT lengths and sampling rates are easily obtained for
all operation modes while at the same time ensuring the easy implementation of dual-mode devices
with a common clock reference. Table 1 summarizes some of the main physical layer parameters for
LTE in FDD mode.

Not all the sub-carriers are modulated (i.e. used). The DC sub-carrier is not used as well as sub-
carriers on either side of the channel band: approximately 10% of sub-carriers are used as guard

In a macrocell, the coherence bandwidth of the signal is in the order of 1 MHz. Within the LTE
carrier bandwidth of up to 20 MHz there are some sub-carriers that are faded and other are not
faded. Transmission is done using those frequencies that are not faded. The transmission can be
scheduled by Resource Blocks (RB) each of which consists of 12 consecutive sub-carriers, or 180
kHz, for the duration of one slot (0.5 ms). This granularity is selected to limit signaling overhead. A
Resource Element (RE) is the smallest defined unit which consists of one OFDM sub-carrier during
one OFDM symbol interval. Each Resource Block consists of 12 ⋅ 7 = 84 Resource Elements in case
of normal cyclic prefix (72 for extended CP). Figure 5 illustrates the definition of Resource Blocks
and Resource Elements.

The uplink transmission structure is similar to the downlink. The smallest unit of resource is the
Resource Element, which consists of one SC-FDMA data block length on one sub-carrier (permissible
to use this term because DFT is used for pre-coding with a 15 kHz sub-carrier spacing). A resource
block consists of 12 REs for the duration of a slot (0.5 ms). The minimum allocated bandwidth to a
UE is, therefore, 180 kHz. Multiple resource blocks are assigned consecutively in the frequency
domain to a UE in the uplink while dispersed, non-consecutive assignment, is done on the downlink.

In the time domain, a 10 ms uplink frame consists of 10 one ms subframes and 20 slots. The
supported uplink CP durations are he same as those of the downlink: normal CP of 4.69 ms and
extended CP for 16.67 ms (duration of first CP in normal mode is 5.2 ms, also similar to the
downlink). A slot consists of 7 or 6 SC-FDMA symbols in case of normal or extended mode CP,

Next: Reference Signals

About the Author
Frank Rayal is the Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder at Telesystem Innovations. Based in
Canada, Mr. Rayal assists clients with technology and vendor evaluation, business plan and financial
modeling, RFI/RFP process, RF network planning and dimensioning, and project management for
field trials and network deployment, and product requirement development. Prior to founding TSI,
he was Director of Product Management at Redline Communications, where he developed base
stations targeted at different market segments and applications and launched end-to-end broadband
wireless access networks in emerging markets. Mr. Rayal holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from
Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, and a MASc and MBA from the University of
Toronto. He can be reached at:

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